Women In Innovation Success Stories: Emma Shaw, Library of Things, Greater London

Posted on: 10/06/2022

Emma Shaw’s ‘Library of Things’ (LoT) is a female-led social enterprise on a mission to make borrowing better than buying.

Co-founded by Emma alongside Rebecca Trevalyan and Sophia Wyatt, the business provides an affordable alternative to buying occasional-use products, helping people save money and reduce waste. Members borrow items such as DIY and entertainment products like drills and sewing machines, from self-service kiosks hosted within local libraries, high streets and housing blocks.

Emerging business model

When they won Innovate UK’s Women in Innovation Award in March 2021, the company was two years old and there was just one Library of Things (LoT) location, in Crystal Palace.  The second location in Morden was about to open and the eleventh employee had just joined the team.

Pilot partnerships with manufacturers, Bosch, Karcher and Stihl, were underway and they had a pipeline of London partners ready to start in new locations as soon as the lockdown restrictions lifted. Their time was put to good use during the lockdowns, when they focused on building their own software platform and integrating it with an off-the-shelf locker system.

Growth resumed

After a one-year pause due to Covid, growing from one to six locations and opening their second location in Morden were momentous milestones.  Emma said: “We’d survived, our team was stronger and we could finally walk through the doors of the Civic Centre to see the product of our hard work being used by local residents at Morden Library.”

In June, a LoT was opened at The Baths community venue at Hackney Wick and in September, another opened in the popular high street library in Kentish Town, which is Emma’s local LoT.  “Nothing beats popping in to borrow the sewing machine or seeing other borrowers taking the carpet cleaner, drill or projector home for the weekend,” Emma said.

In October, Emma joined their local partners to open the team’s fifth location in Finsbury Park at Brightsparks Repair & Reuse shop, their first retail location. The sixth location opened in Dalston Library before Christmas, and attracted press coverage on BBC London News. The team are now working with 20 local partners across London – from local authorities to grassroots community groups and independent businesses – and there are tens more LoTs planned to launch in London this year.

An inspiring vision

In terms of funding, they have secured £360,000 worth of commissions from London councils and are a third of the way to hitting their £1 million funding target to support growth over the next two years, bringing LoT to new neighbourhoods in London and beyond.

Emma said: “In five years, we aim to support a network of over fifty locally-rooted LoTs around the country, with a model that makes it easy, affordable and accessible for any neighbourhood to have a Library of Things (if they want one!).”

Emma is most proud of growing the core team from 11 to 16 people, plus 10 local contractors, and is blown away by the talent, commitment and passion in the team. They were named in the Escape the City’s 100 best purposeful organisations to work with in 2021. In terms of her own personal growth Emma said: “Joining a peer network of like-minded female entrepreneurs has had the most single biggest impact. We feel like we’re not alone with the challenges we experience with LoT and it’s good to have a safe space to share challenges and advice.”

She continues: “I feel more confident to speak out about what’s different and difficult for female entrepreneurs. Rather than feeling ‘imposter syndrome’, I now recognise that female entrepreneurship doesn’t necessarily fit the cultural stereotype of the Hero Founder, and we need to share our experiences more loudly and more publicly to break this stereotype.”

And finally, Emma said: “The bootcamps and informal gatherings with other award winner were by far the most beneficial aspect of the programme. The best way to benefit from this programme is to find opportunities to connect with the other women in your cohort and others. Perhaps we need an annual festival, as well as an alumni network to enable this!”

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